Thursday 21 November 2019

Being there trumps being fair in Ireland

Niamh Hourigan says the Irish tendency to look out for each other may have led to the financial crisis, writes this reviewer.. and we've haven't learned yet

Thumbs up from voters: Tipperary TD Michael Lowry
Thumbs up from voters: Tipperary TD Michael Lowry
Rule-Breakers by Niamh Hourigan
John Meagher

John Meagher

At first glance, there is little similarity between the agrarian Ireland of two centuries ago and the increasingly urban country we call home in 2015.

But in this probing and provocative book, sociologist Niamh Hourigan argues that our colonial past has not only helped shape the Ireland of today, but also informs how our centuries-old aversion to rules played its part in an economic crisis whose impact still reverberates.

Hourigan, a University College Cork lecturer, contends that one of the by-products of being colonised was the emergence of a value system that nurtured looking out for "our own" rather than strictly adhering to the rules of the land. It was this very attitude that created conditions that allowed corruption to flourish, but it also made life more tolerable during the punitive years of Troika-imposed austerity programmes as comfort was sought in family and community. Hourigan uses a neat shorthand for this value system - "being there rather than being fair" - and talks at length about the clientelist phenomenon in Irish politics where both ordinary people and wealthy elites expect politicians to do their bidding.

This is territory that has been frequently examined by historians and political analysts, but Hourigan attempts to breathe new life into the topic by tracing its historical roots and demonstrating how the experience of being colonised still colours contemporary behaviour.

To support her arguments, she relies primarily on anonymous interviews - both with voters and elected politicians - and their unguarded opinions illustrate just how entrenched the value system really is in Ireland.

She pays special attention to how 'looking out for our own' rather than 'following the rules' has ensured poll-topping performance for controversial Tipperary TD Michael Lowry in each of the past three general elections.

She quotes several anonymous constituents who say they don't care about Lowry's tax evasion or his preferential treatment of elites, because he gets the job done locally.

"He always puts the voters of Tipperary North first," a constituent, Maurice, tells Hourigan. "We rely on him to do that... I suppose we feel that Dublin doesn't really give a shit about us but Lowry will always look after us."

"The politician who does a 'turn' for a voter in everyday Irish political culture will be rewarded with a vote," she writes, "and their actions will contribute to their reputation as a 'good' politician from a relationship-based perspective."

Although Hourigan is at pains to stress that she is not blaming ordinary Irish people for the crash, she is not afraid to highlight the undeniable hypocrisy of an environment where constituents expect their local TD to help them (at the expense of their parliamentary work), and yet notes that the same people tend to get outraged when elites seek political favours.

One of her interviewees, Cork doctor Feargal, says he is "highly critical of the political elite's practice of 'being there' for bankers and developers, yet he expects his local politicians to 'be there' for him and his colleagues". After his local TD managed to get the footpath outside his clinic "sorted", Feargal admitted to Hourigan that "yes, I probably will vote for him next time because of it".

Hourigan argues that in the first 40 or so years after independence, politicians and voters largely favoured a rules rather than relationships system and it wasn't until the emergence of Charles Haughey and his ilk in the 1960s that the favours system truly became rife in public life.

"The Civil War generation of politicians retired and were replaced by a younger group who recognised that elite intimacy at the political level was a valuable commodity that could be sold to those who could pay."

But her suggestion that Ireland was comparatively free of corruption up to that point conveniently ignores the scandal of the Irish Hospitals' Sweepstakes where, over the course of decades, only an estimated 10th of the millions raised went to hospitals. One of the most compelling arguments in the book is the idea that while many people realise that it was the breaking of rules (in favour of looking out for our own) that brought the country to the brink of financial meltdown, there is still considerable reluctance to engage with the rules today. Much of this, she argues, stems from the way wealthy, connected individuals seem to have ridden out the recession, while ordinary people have been saddled with debt.

She looks at the unfairness of a situation where, for instance, Christine Connolly, wife of bankrupt developer Larry O'Mahoney, successfully argued in the High Court that she should be awarded living expenses of €9,000 per month for herself and her three children, while an unnamed Laois couple with debts of around €200,000 faced the prospect of losing everything.

"Colonialism generated a sense in Irish culture that rules are inherently unfair," she writes.

"The top-down nature of the Troika bailout, and the different rules for elites and for ordinary citizens which emerged as part of the austerity process, reawakened these memories."

Rule-Breakers arrives at a timely juncture, now that parts of the country appear to be moving out of recession and the dust is settling on one of the most difficult periods Ireland has ever faced. This is the time, surely, when we should look at ourselves and ask if our self-interests in the short-term collectively harm us in the future.

Hourigan spent six years working on the project and there's a scrupulous academic bent to heavily footnoted chapters. There's nothing 'top of the head' about her arguments and she is meticulous about backing up every assertion. And yet, the book's reliance on anonymous sources lessens its impact considerably. Surely some former politicians would have been willing to talk to her on the record about clientelism?

Elsewhere, one can't help but feel they've read much of this story before, not least the part about Michael Lowry and his relationship with the denizens of Tipperary.

As an academic tome, the book succeeds, but it may struggle to ­engage the more general reader.

There's none of the lightness of touch to be found in the more successful books to be published since recession hit in 2008 and every chapter is crying out for anecdotes, not least when she writes about the infamous Fianna Fáil tent at the Galway races.

The most entertaining story in the entire book centres on Charles Haughey and the expletive-strewn language of his press advisor PJ Mara, but the anecdote first surfaced in T Ryle Dwyer's biography of the late Taoiseach many years ago.

Social science:


Niamh Hourigan, Gill and Macmillan pbk, 232p, €16.99

Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709350

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